Miracles-but Without the Moorings
BY John Prizer
March 16-22, 1997 Issue | Posted 3/16/97 at 1:00 PM
Writer-director Paul Schrader was raised an evangelical Protestant but lost the faith as an adult His works often reflect his conflicted feelings about this experience. Agifted critic, he has analyzed Christian filmmakers like Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer with sympathy and intelligence. But in his screenplay of The Last Temptation of Christ and his writing and directing of Hardcore, for example, he has satirized organized religion and attacked orthodox beliefs.
Schrader's adaption and direction of best-selling author Elmore Leonard's only non-crime novel, Touch, continues his obsession with these subjects. Bill Hill (Christopher Walken) was once a prosperous evangelist with a rock'em-sock'em church service, complete with baton-twirling altar girls and the world's tallest illuminated cross. But when he moved his operation from Georgia to Los Angeles, his flock deserted him, and he now makes his living selling recreational vehicles.
Eager to get back into the religion-for-profit game, Hill sees his opportunity when he witnesses a shy substance-abuse counselor named Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich) heal his former organist, Virginia (Conchata Ferrell), of her blindness. Aformer Franciscan Brother, the miracle worker first displayed his gifts at a distant Amazon mission. Since leaving the order, he's kept a low profile, performing his acts of healing without publicity while earning a living at an alcohol-rehabilitation center run by a priest
Schrader makes it clear that Juvenal's powers are real and that the young man has no desire to put himself in the spotlight. The rehab center is fiercely protective of the healer, and Hill is unable to spend the time with Juvenal necessary to persuade him to take his act public.
For this purpose Hill enlists one of his former baton-twirlers, Lynn Faulkner (Brigit Fonda), who pretends to be a recovering alcoholic. Juvenal sees through her deception immediately, but he's so attracted to her that he allows her to hang around anyway.
Also itching to exploit the young healer is August Murray (Tom Arnold), founder of the Gray Army of the Holy Ghost and OUTRAGE (Organization Unifying Traditional Rites as God Expects). Schrader delights in using this character to make fun of what he considers the extremist tendencies in the Catholic Church, an institution which he distrusts. When we first see Murray, he's just been arrested for assaulting a priest whose practices were judged too modern.
Murray has organized a traditionalist service with Juvenal as the reluctant main attraction, hoping to spark a nationwide religious revival which would promote his organizations. He invites an ambitious newspaper reporter, Kathy Worthington (Janeane Garofolo) to attend. The young healer lays his hands on a leukemia-stricken boy who immediately goes into remission. The event winds up on the front page of Worthington's paper.
Hill and his protege, Lynn, also witness the healing, and their reactions are very different. The ex-evangelist sees the possibilities for lucrative book and record deals with Juvenal and signs up Artie, a record promoter (Paul Mazursky), who quips that the Pope sold 2.5 million units because “he toured.”
Lynn agrees to persuade the young healer to participate in these schemes, but, unlike Hill, she is sincerely moved by Juvenal's gifts and wants to help him. They go off to an expensive hotel to rest and soon become lovers.
Worthington does a follow-up story-which mentions their romance. Murray is furious. Not only does the article fail to mention him and his organizations, but be also considers it sinful for a healer not to be celibate. However, he blames Lynn for Juvenal's alleged transgressions and determines to execute divine judgment upon her.
Murray breaks into Lynn's apartment and defaces it with grafitti. He waits for the loving couple to return and then threatens to kill her. He and Juvenal scuffle, ending with Murray falling off the balcony and severely injuring himself.
Murray's behavior is meant to represent religious fanaticism in what to Schrader is one of its most dangerous manifestations—fear of sex—and, in dramatizing this, the filmmaker sees nothing wrong with Juvenal's affair. He doesn't seem to realize that many devout people who don't share Murray's extreme views might find this behavior troubling.
The young healer is presented throughout as a humble, misunderstood hero, but his notion of God seems closer to the Force in the Star Wars trilogy than orthodox Christian beliefs. He has a vaguely-defined desire to do good, a position which Schrader applauds. Furthermore, Juvenal, reacting passively to all the attempts to exploit him, offers no particular judgment on the different schemes designed to ensnare him.
Hill cons a tabloid TV talk-show host, Debra Lusanne (Gina Gershon) into devoting an entire show to Juvenal. The ratings-hungry celebrity claims that “controversy is my oxygen,” and she tries to make the young healer look like a fake. When accused of profiting from his gifts, Juvenal responds with wide-eyed innocence. He then gratuituously attacks the Catholic Church, arguing that it's too restrictive in its conception of God. This outburst is Schrader's invention. It was not in Leonard's novel
The talk-show host confronts Juvenal with the injured Murray, arguing that such violence is inappropiate for a man of God. But the young man turns the tables on her and heals Murray in front of millions of viewers. Lusanne, delighted with the theatricality of the moment, rushes over to interview the bewildered Murray. Lynn sneaks onto the set, grabs Juvenal and takes him away.
Schrader believes in miracles and rightfully resents all attempts to exploit them for profit. But where Leonard, in the novel, tickles us with a feather, Schrader hits us over the head with a sledgehammer. The film-maker simply despises organized religion because it links faith and good works to moral and ethical teaching. This attitude leads him to turn Leonard's gentle satire into a heavy-handed, basically unfunny farce.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.
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